How to support a friend with an eating disorder: Eating Disorders Awareness Week

If you’re reading this with a friend in mind, we’d like to firstly acknowledge your position in this friendship and what might be happening for you. Eating disorders don’t just affect the individual sufferer but can impact all different people in their lives – including friends.

It can be hard to know “what to do” when you see someone you care about going through hardship. Often, we can feel helpless and worried that we’re not doing enough to support them – especially if the friend is distancing or isolating themselves from others. As social animals who care about one another, it can be difficult not to be pulled into the panic and anxiety that surrounds an eating disorder and tempting to allow our personal needs to take a backseat.

Here are our suggestions for supporting someone who is suffering with an eating disorder.

Check in with them

Research has proven that the earlier someone accesses specialist support, the quicker and more sustained their recovery is likely to be. If you have concerns about a friend, check in with them and share these concerns. Find a time when emotions aren’t running high and focus on their emotions and underlying feelings, as opposed to specific eating disorder symptoms or behaviours. Listen, so that they feel heard, and make a mental note to follow up with them in the future when the time is right.

Know your boundaries

Our recent blog post on boundaries going into more detail on this, however, boundaries are basically the limits we set for ourselves within relationships. They keep relationships strong and healthy and involve knowing when to say “yes” and “no” at appropriate times to tend to your needs and protect your energy.

When someone is struggling and needing a lot of support, it’s common to feel compelled to “fix” them and be present 24/7 whenever they need. As helpful as this may seem, it is vital that you look after yourself first. As the quote goes, “you cannot pour from an empty cup” – you can’t keep giving if you haven’t got anything left to give. Grant yourself permission to engage in regular acts of self-care.

Signpost to additional specialist support

Related to our point above, it is not your responsibility to “fix” someone. If your friend isn’t undergoing therapy or specialist treatment it may be helpful to signpost them to eating disorder support services or treatment centres to explore their options. Beat, our charity partner, is a fantastic resource for support and offers different helplines and support groups for everyone involved (so you, too, can get the support you need).

Avoid diet talk

Whilst eating disorders are not about food, be mindful of how you talk about food and your food choices around someone who is struggling. By engaging in talk that labels food as “good” or “bad” you’ll risk exacerbating someone’s fixation on the nutritional content of food.

Model “normal” behaviour

Often, we encourage those around those suffering to be role models for “normal behaviour”. People suffering with eating disorder can become disconnected with the natural flow of life and having people around them who “normalise” core aspects of life, such as food, eating and social behaviours can be very helpful.

An eating disorder is pretty much the antithesis of living “intuitively”. By going about your life in your normal way you can help normalise behaviours and undo any fear associated with these behaviours.

Hold onto hope – they are not their eating disorder

There will be ups and downs in this journey and holding on to hope – especially during challenging times – is crucial. Keep in mind that they are not their eating disorder and make sure to return to self-caring practices when you feel that your energy is depleted.

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